Verdi: Overture to I vespri siciliani
BORN: October 10, 1813. Le Roncole near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma (Italy)
DIED: January 27, 1901. Milan, Italy
COMPOSED: Begun early in 1854 and completed about a year later
WORLD PREMIERE: June 13, 1855, under the title Les Vêpres siciliennes. Narcisse Girard conducted at the Paris Opera
US PREMIERE: November 1859. New York, NY
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1944. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—March 1981. David Ramadanoff conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: Flute and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, ophicleide (generally replaced nowadays by bass tuba), timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, and strings
DURATION: About 10 minutes
THE BACKSTORY On February 26, 1852, Verdi signed a contract with the Paris Opera for a new work to be produced in late 1854. For Verdi, this contract was a token of arrival. As the opera scholar Julian Budden writes, “To conquer the stage of the Paris Opera at some point in his career was a necessity felt by every Italian composer who aspired to international fame.” The Opera in Paris offered great production resources and an eager audience. Earnings were good, too. Over the years, Verdi, who spent much time in Paris in the later part of his life, was to discover the dark side of all this, namely that in the course of attending hundreds of performances at the Opera he saw none that was really satisfactory from the musical point of view.
By 1852, Verdi was an experienced opera composer, with other projects standing in line. He wanted first to write Il Trovatore, which he had had on his mind since the beginning of 1850, and he had promised Venice a new opera, which turned out to be La Traviata. Finally, in February or March 1854, he began to compose Les Vêpres siciliennes (Sicilian Vespers) for Paris. As so often, he had libretto miseries. Augustin Eugène Scribe, upon whose participation Verdi had insisted, was the author of something like 140 librettos, which amount to about one quarter of his literary output. He was a master manufacturer of smoothly purring theatrical machines, he understood perfectly the prejudices and desires of the Parisian middle-class public, and he died a rich man. His rather flat words were sung to the music of Auber, Bellini, Donizetti, Gounod, Halévy, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, and Rossini, among dozens of others. In 1852, he was sixty years old and tired. For this new Verdi project he engaged Charles Duveyrier as a collaborator. Verdi was outraged by the mixture of the preposterous and the insipid with which he was presented and, neither for the first time nor for the last, he found himself participating actively in the shaping of the text.
His greatest exasperation came some years later when he discovered that the libretto was a poor adaptation of an old book prepared for but not composed by Donizetti. That was The Duke of Alba, named for the tyrannical sixteenth-century Spanish governor of the Netherlands. In choosing for their subject the Sicilian massacre (in 1282) of the French military and civilian population of Palermo, marking the start of Sicily’s revolt against Charles I, the Angevin king of Naples and Sicily, the librettists simply turned Dutchmen into Sicilians and Spaniards into Frenchmen. It was a subject bound to cause Verdi trouble with the censors at home, and when Les Vêpres siciliennes made its way to Italy at the end of 1855, it was with an altered text and a new title, Giovanna de Guzman. Only in 1860 was it staged as I vespri siciliani and with a text that was a translation of the French original.
THE MUSIC I vespri siciliani did not become a repertory classic, but it is a noble and fascinating opera, and the public embraced two of its numbers, the aria O tu, Palermo of Procida, the revolutionary leader returning from exile, and the overture. This is one of the last of Verdi’s full-dress overtures; even in Rigoletto and La Traviata he had explored the possibilities of the short, atmospheric prelude. All the themes of the I vespri siciliani Overture come from the opera itself. A slow introduction alternates scarcely audible staccato shudders, associated consistently in the opera with the idea of death, and woodwind phrases of ecclesiastical character. The death shudders persist even during the presentation by flute, clarinets, and bassoon, of the first aria of Elena, a Sicilian noblewoman mourning her brother’s execution by the French. A drumroll introduces a fiery allegro whose most memorable features are the magnificent cello tune (in the opera it occurs as part of a moving scene between a father and his estranged son) and the softly pianissimo passage for shimmering high violins—with the death chords in bassoons, low brass, percussion, and plucked basses—which is Elena’s farewell to Sicily when she believes her own execution as a rebel to be near. The close is stirring in that agitated way for which Verdi alone held the recipe.—Michael Steinberg
LISTEN AGAIN: Claudio Abbado leading the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.